wikimedia. Samuel Atkins. El Endeavour patiendo al descubrimiento de 1768-1771. Biblioteca Nacional de Australia

The Drivers of Australian Foreign Policy

Publication date:
Michael Wesley, Professor of International Affairs and Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University (ANU)

Australia has a particularly singular outlook on the world. It is a large, richly-endowed island-continent, with a small population mostly clustered in three cities along its south-eastern coast, which faces away from the rest of the world. The two other countries most similar in geographic size, China and the United States, respectively have populations 52 times and 16 times larger than Australia’s. Australia shares no land border with any other state, and its huge maritime territory is abutted by the world’s two largest island archipelagos. All but 3% of its population who are indigenous are immigrants or descended from immigrants. Australia has the world’s 13th largest economy and 12th largest military budget. There is no country that has as large a cultural or developmental gap with its neighbours, although immigration and rapid development in Asia, respectively, are narrowing these.

Although some commentators have ascribed Australia’s circumstances to good luck, the maintenance of prosperity and safety for such a singular society must be about more than just favourable fortune. The ability to manage Australia’s relations with a rapidly evolving and often turbulent international environment has played a major role in the creation of today’s Australia. While its diplomatic service is small by comparison to other developed states, the managers of Australia’s foreign relations have proved particularly effective in asserting and protecting Australia’s interests on the world stage. Over time, a particularly Australian approach to foreign policy has emerged, which has become so ingrained in the thinking and planning of practitioners and observers, that often they do not notice its existence. This distinctive approach has been honed by four underlying drivers, or preoccupations, which structure the way Australian foreign policy makers think about the world. The foreign policy approach that results is reinforced and deepened by the effectiveness of the actions it produces; but the challenge for Australian foreign policy in the future is that each of the four drivers is currently under unprecedented challenge, which will make the policy produced less effective over time.


Australia has only been invaded once. In 1788, three ships carrying convicts and soldiers arrived at Botany Bay, as an act of British Imperial strategy. The recently-concluded Seven Years’ War had changed the nature of imperial competition: empire would no longer about trade and investment, but about control and occupation of territory. The War had showed how vulnerable overseas possessions were to seizure by rivals; the new strategic imperative was to develop naval bases that would allow Empires to protect their colonies from hostile takeovers. Australia emerged as an ideally-situated base allowing naval resupply and refitting within range of increasingly valuable Asian colonies. Shortly after the British arrived at Botany Bay, a French fleet arrived, but sailed away again – beaten to the prize.

The convicts, soldiers and settlers who relocated to Australia took with them a profound sense of isolation that imbued the society they founded. Their voyage was the furthest maritime journey on the planet; they were leaving behind not only a country but a hemisphere. When they arrived they found themselves in a vast, arid continent awash with harsh light, populated by bizarre fauna and flora, its seasons reversed from those of the northern hemisphere. Few would ever afford a return trip to the British Isles: relocation was permanent and communication with the home country was slow and expensive. 

Isolation bred a particular attitude towards the outside world. There was a deep fear that hostile powers would establish themselves in positions of strength closer than their imperial protectors, and be able to menace the fledgling colony. The first imperative was to claim the entire Australian continent for the British crown. The second was to do the same for the entire South Pacific. The wellsprings of Australian foreign policy arose from the dread of hostile powers achieving footholds in the Pacific islands, from where they might pose a threat of attack against the Australian colonies. In April 1883, the colony of Queensland unilaterally annexed the south-eastern portion of the island of New Guinea for the British crown, as a pre-emptive act to counter rumours that Germany was about to establish colonial outposts there.

The British government’s repudiation of the annexation, and the outrage this caused in Australia, were a powerful stimulus for the Australian colonies negotiating federation and achieving independence from Britain in 1901. But isolation bred a creative tension in Australian foreign policy. One on hand, frustration with Britain’s insensitivity to Australian apprehensions (which Australians ascribed to Whitehall’s remoteness from the Antipodes), led to a strong impulse to develop independent policies and capabilities for shaping Australia’s surrounding regions. On the other hand, a worry about Australia’s capacity to do so, due to a small population inhabiting a vast continent, led to a deep dependence on imperial ties and capabilities.

Imperial Japan’s lightning campaign through Southeast Asia in 1942 seared the perils of isolation even deeper into the Australian consciousness. The arrival of Japanese forces in two islands close to Australia confirmed several fears. Australia’s remoteness from Britain meant the Empire was not only unable to defend it; it was prepared to assign Australia a lower priority for defence than it assigned to its own security in Europe. It also raised the prospect that while Australian troops were fighting for the Empire in North Africa, their own homeland would be unprotected against an attack from an Asian power. Australia was lucky that the United States chose it to be the base for its Pacific campaign, which progressively pushed Japanese forces back from Australia’s approaches.

The shock of 1942 cemented isolation as a basic driver of Australian foreign policy. As soon as the war ended, policymakers were determined to integrate Australia into security institutions that would provide them with voice and security. When NATO was founded in 1949, Canberra signalled strong interest in joining, and when this campaign failed, it focused on negotiating an alliance with the United States, which it achieved in September 1951. But the alliance did not allay the anxieties of isolation. The United States was powerful, but had many, global commitments. The imperatives for Australian statecraft were to demonstrate its loyalty as an ally by supporting American strategic objectives whenever possible, and by constantly raising the challenges in Australian’s own region to the attention of US policymakers.

Status quo-ism

Australia was founded at the dawning of the age of a globalising, industrial economy. By the mid-nineteenth century, its settlers were using the vast territories they had appropriated to produce the raw materials needed to build an industrial age: wheat, meat, wool, coal, gold, making Australian society one of the wealthiest in the world in per-capita terms. As Australian society grew in wealth and strength, so did the British Empire of which they were a proud part, creating in effect a cocoon of safety and prosperity for the Australian colonies. Australians jealously guarded their prosperity by restricting immigration and demanding an end to the transportation of convicts, and began to conduct radical social and political experiments: a minimum wage; prescribed working hours; full political rights for women (but not indigenous Australians); mandatory voting through a secret ballot.

Australians became eager believers in racial hierarchy, viewing themselves as Anglo-Saxons to be a chosen people at the apex of humanity. It was a belief shared across the empire: that Anglo-Saxons were the custodians of a genius for liberty, governance and ingenuity that the Roman historian Tacitus had observed among the barbarian tribes of Germany. The English-speaking peoples, it was believed, had been first to demand their liberties from feudal lords, to develop an elected Parliament to check the power of kings, to establish the supremacy of a system of common law applicable to all; to spark an industrial revolution; to champion free markets; and the build the most extensive empire in history. It was an attitude that gave rise to cruel and repressive actions against Australia’s indigenous people, and a desire to exclude all non-white immigration. The first piece of Commonwealth legislation passed was the Immigration Restriction Act, establishing the White Australia Policy.

The comfort, safety and confidence of Australian society in its early years gave rise to a discomfort with change. Because they were so fortunate, any change to Australia’s circumstances was thought to be by definition a deterioration. Britain’s comparative decline from the late nineteenth century was met by an Australian urge to strengthen the Empire, so that Britain and her Dominions would shoulder the burden of protecting the status quo. Other foreign policy actions had the intent of protecting Australia’s domestic status quo. Prime Minister Billy Hughes (1915-1923) argued forcefully against a Japanese proposal for a racial equality clause inserted into the League of Nations Charter; later Foreign Minister H. V. Evatt was instrumental in drafting Article 2(7) in the United Nations Charter, preventing intervention in the domestic affairs of member states. Both statesmen were protecting the White Australia Policy from external pressures. 


Isolation and privilege bred among Australians a dread of anarchy, both in the sense of fearing disorder, and in the sense of an antipathy for the ruthless, competitive statecraft of Europe. They shared with their American cousins a sense that in leaving Europe, they could shape a much more stable and predictable order in their own hemisphere. The urge to dominate the Pacific while excluding competitors was fed by a fear of anarchy. European powers wanting bases in Australia’s region threatened to re-create Europe’s jostling power politics too close to home; “a variety of nationalities… armed to the teeth” was how one Victorian Parliamentarian imagined such a future in the South Pacific.

Soon fears of European rivals were overwhelmed by fears about Asia. When Australians sailed northwards, they found societies they judged to be densely populated, poor and chaotic. Feelings of racial superiority jostled against a dread of the dynamism, fertility, and avarice they believed their Asian neighbours to be animated by. Two societies most piqued Australian fears: China and Japan. The Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) coincided with the Australian gold rushes to draw thousands of Chinese migrants to Australia’s shores. They were met by undisguised and violent hostility. Their willingness to endure hardship and to work unstintingly led to claims that allowing Asian immigration would drag down the wages and standard of living of Australians. Later, Japan’s domestic transformation and industrialisation after the Meiji Restoration prompted a different fear about Asia. Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905 raised the prospect of an Asian great power able to threaten Australia just at the time when Britain’s attention was being drawn back to Europe by its rivalry with a rising Germany. Little wonder, then, that when the United States’ “Great White Fleet” visited Australian ports in 1908, it was welcomed by rapturous crowds.

Australia’s anarchophobia was practical as well as emotional. Its society was aware that there were too few Australians to defend such a vast territory from attack; and yet they were unprepared to allow the high rates of immigration (particularly from Asia) that would have allowed them to build up such a population base. The strategic implication of this is that emerging threats had to be addressed far from Australia’s shores: once they were within striking distance of the island-continent, it would be too late. This gave Australian foreign policy an enduring concern with global affairs, and made Australians willing to fight in wars far from their territory, helping allies maintain order. Consequently, Australia’s military history is heavily concentrated in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, rather than its own region.

Integration into America’s Cold War alliance network provided a new framework for keeping anarchy at bay. Allied to the world’s pre-eminent power, Australian society found comfort in the clean and predictable rivalries between the superpowers and their respective alliance systems. In signing on to the “Five Eyes” intelligence partnership with the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, Australia became integrated closely into the prosecution of the Cold War, both through intelligence sharing and accepting “responsibility” for order in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia on behalf of the alliance. It became a strong supporter of American power, and eagerly seized every opportunity to strengthen the alliance and demonstrate its loyalty.

After the Cold War, Australia revelled in the “Unipolar moment”. Its major ally appeared invincible, not only militarily, but economically, culturally and technologically. Its imperative after the 9/11 attacks was to support the United States at all turns, even joining its invasion of Iraq in 2003 despite huge domestic opposition to the war. Whatever the collateral damage, America’s willingness to enforce global stability was seen to be a net good for Australia. 


For a nation fearful of unrestrained global competition, and with a genius of regulating its domestic affairs, the rise of international institution building after the First World War was seen as a welcome development. Australians worried that the sequential rise of great powers would result in an international “law of the jungle”, where the powerful did as they pleased and the weak suffered. All-encompassing institutions that prescribed state behaviour, encoded property rights, and sanctioned aggressive behaviour appeared to be the best way of keeping the “law of the jungle” at bay.

Australian diplomats had great advantages in working to build multilateral institutions. In federating and gaining their independence, the Australian colonies had shown a particular talent for institutional design, both borrowing ideas from elsewhere and innovating where necessary. They had inherited close knowledge of parliamentary procedure, common law, as well as the English language from Britain, and all three were fundamental to the design and operation of multilateral bodies.

And so Australian statecraft was able from the very earliest times work to build strong international institutions, and to secure its own interests within them. Both the League of Nations and the United Nations bore marks of Australia’s influence. Repeatedly, Australia was able to negotiate “special deals”, largely at odds with the principles of organisations it belonged to. The mandate its was granted over Papua New Guinea by both the League and the UN gave it more leeway than it was entitled to; later it was allowed to protect its domestic industry in ways that were denied to other members of the GATT.

The urge to institutionalism also bred an obsession with membership and exclusion in Australian society. The formation of NATO raised anxieties that Australia was being left on the outer by its two great allies, which it addressed by pressing for an alliance of its own with the US. Later, Australia viewed Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community with concern, only to be reassured by the growth of demand for Australia’s exports by Japan and other industrialising Asian economies. The next iteration of exclusion fears came in the 1980s, when the formation of regional blocs in Europe and North America raised the possibility that an exclusive bloc may form in Asia, separating Australia from its key markets.

Exclusion fears have led to a willingness to propose and drive the creation of new institutions. Confronted by Asian statesmen who questioned Australia’s “Asian” credentials and therefore membership eligibility, Australia proposed a new Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation organisation in 1989. While there may be questions over its Asian identity, no-one could question its Asia-Pacific status. When once again the spectre of an exclusive East Asian regionalism arose early in the 21st century in the form of ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and Korea) talks, Australia successfully argued for the benefits of a broader regional grouping to include India, Australia and New Zealand, by playing on some states’ fears of a region dominated by China. Shortly afterwards, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd used the Global Financial Crisis to argue for the institutionalisation of a G20 of leading economic powers, rather than a G12 which had been proposed by others, and which Australia would have been excluded from. More recently, Australia has returned to its tactic of creative cartography to place itself once again at the centre of geopolitical framing, arguing for an expanded “Indo-Pacific” realm to replace the more restrictive “Asia Pacific”.

In its more idealistic moments, Australia’s institutionalism is manifested in bouts of “middle power activism”. The middle power tradition, tracing its lineage back to16th-century Italian jurist Giovanni Botero, argues that states that are not great powers but have significant diplomatic capacity have both the ability and the obligation to play a creative role in institution-building and conflict resolution. Such impulses led to Australia playing pivotal roles in sponsoring conflict resolution in Cambodia in 1989-91, East Timor in 1999-2000 and Solomon Islands in 2003-17.

Australia’s institutionalism also leads it to believe that regionalism and multilateralism can be deployed to strategic effect. It became an enthusiastic proponent of including former Cold War rivals in regional institutions after the end of the Cold War, from the belief that participation would both “socialise” them to the established rules while convincing them that they were gaining too much from participating to challenge the established order as they became stronger. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans argued strongly for China’s inclusion in APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum, and for Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar to gain membership also. Its hopes of positive socialisation of China have not been met, particularly as China has been able to use these organisations’ own consensus rules to block discussion of its more controversial actions. The new impulse to use institutions to socialise China’s behaviour relies not on inducements but on shaming. In joining Japan, India and other regional countries in calling for fidelity to the “rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific, Australia is implicitly calling out China’s disruptive actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and seeking to use the threat of diplomatic isolation to change Beijing’s behaviour. 

The World Moves

Isolation, status quo-ism, anarchophobia and institutionalism have combined to shape Australian statecraft in distinctive ways. These drivers of Australian foreign policy have been both shaped by Australia’s international circumstances, and have shaped Australia’s responses to those circumstances. And by any measure, Australia’s foreign policy has served the nation well though both challenging and stable eras. But international relations is a realm of constant change, and as the 21st century advances, the world is evolving in uncomfortable directions for Australia and its foreign policy makers. Indeed, Australia faces a perfect storm as international trends develop that challenge each of the four drivers of Australian foreign policy.

As the largest countries in Asia industrialise, their security preoccupations are shifting from domestic concerns to international ones. Japan, China, India, Korea, and Taiwan are increasingly reliant on dependable flows of energy, resources, communications, and components for the continued growth and dynamism of their economies, and have consequently become highly attentive to possible risks to those flows. The business cycle has led the more advanced economies to invest in building industrial capacity in other countries, giving them a real stake in the political stability of the world outside their own borders. Consequently, military and development assistance budgets in Asia have been rising inexorably. But in a long-understood logic, growing statecraft budgets have not bought peace of mind; as neighbours become more capable, each state feels more threatened, irrespective of its own investments.

The result is that Australia is no longer isolated from the cockpits of geopolitical power and contestation. The major Asian powers are each seeking to project influence across the western Pacific and Indian Oceans, while offsetting the capacities of their current or potential rivals to project power. The prospects of using the remoteness of its geography to its advantage are fading fast for Australia. Geopolitical rivalry has established a foothold in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific for the foreseeable future, posing profound choices for its foreign policy. Canberra’s current reaction draws on the wellsprings of isolation as a driver of its foreign policy. Its current “step up” is framed in a way that seeks to counter Beijing’s influence in the South Pacific, seeking to match the main elements of China’s bridgeheads in the region while trying to convince Pacific countries to opt for Australia and its allies as preferred partners. There appears to be little consideration of what it might do in the very likely scenario that the Pacific Island countries opt to engage with China and Australia and its allies.

Canberra is also deeply uncertain of how to respond to the relative decline of American power and will to invest in preserving the global order it constructed and defended after the Second World War. The alliance with the United States had become central to Australian foreign policy during the seven decades when America was all-powerful and the enforcer of a liberal internationalist creed of world order. For Canberra, the answer to any contingency was simple: “double down on the alliance”. The strategic partnership brought both specific and general security: no state would threaten Australia if it risked taking on its superpower ally; while American primacy guaranteed the institutions and practices that had made Australia wealthy and safe.

As the 21st century progresses, it is clear that China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are no longer reluctant to directly challenge American power. Indeed, it seems clear that Beijing and Moscow are focused on demonstrating the weakness of American resolve to their allies. The Presidency of Donald Trump has served only to reinforce this trend. The 45th President has chosen to treat allies and rivals as equals, seeking to intimidate longstanding security partners over issues of equity, while at times speaking in very conciliatory tones about China, Russia and North Korea. Meanwhile on a range of fronts – climate change, trade, arms control – the United States has withdrawn its support for the liberal internationalist principles it once championed, if not directly attacked them. Once again, Australia’s deep status quo-ism has befuddled its responses. On the one hand, its 2016 Defence White Paper draws on established tradition in pledging to deepen alliance integration and investment; on the other, its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper refers to uncertainty over American power and commitment and prioritises creating hedging partnerships with like-minded Asian powers.

As the strategic primacy of the United States in Asia wanes, the prospect of unrestrained power politics dominating the region is rising. The United States and China, along with Japan, Korea and India, are concentrating their efforts around creating alignments of states favourable to their interests. China’s fears of “encirclement” have spawned responses such as the Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to use the dynamism of the Chinese economy to create economic-strategic alignments with its neighbours. The United States and the other Asian powers, fearing the emergence of a China-centred geoeconomic bloc, have responded with economic-security initiatives of their own. Meanwhile, the objects of this great power rivalry – the small and medium-sized states of Southeast Asia and the Pacific – have responded by trying to derive maximum advantage from all suitors.

Australia’s anarchophobia has left it uncertain as to how to respond. Its repeated appeals for support of the “rules-based order” speak to a forlorn hope that a predictable, un-anarchic future-past will somehow triumph. That Beijing refuses to resile from its claims to the South China Sea or its rejection of the Arbitration on its claims seem not to have shaken Canberra’s rhetorical commitment to the rules-based order. Meanwhile the beginnings of a hedging strategy are emerging, though tentatively and without conviction. Australia is building plurilateral forums, such as the Trilateral Security Dialogue with the US and Japan, and the “Quads” with Japan, India and the US. But without the customary Australian enthusiasm, creativity and energy, these are weak reeds in positioning its interests amidst the new power competition.

Finally, Canberra is aware of the twin challenges to international institutions. Amidst rising power competition, institutions are decreasingly influential in shaping state behaviour. At the same time, institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional internally, unable to reflect and moderate shifts in power and initiative among their members. Despite this, Australia remains strongly committed to regional and multilateral bodies, and as fearful as ever of exclusion. Meanwhile its diplomatic resources are consumed in servicing decreasingly consequential international summits, leaving little leeway for thinking about different ways of rendering state behaviour more predictable and accountable.

The delta between the historical drivers of Australian foreign policy and the evolution of its international environment pose deep questions for its approach to statecraft. Such drivers work at a deep, cultural level, taking time and focus to be shifted. Over time, the inadequacies of traditional frameworks of Australian statecraft will become manifest. Its citizens should hope that these shortfalls are noticed and drive the development of new foundations for Australian foreign policy.